- The Washington Times - Friday, January 22, 2010

JERUSALEM | Washington’s Middle East envoy launched a new effort Thursday aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, just as President Obama expressed pessimism about the prospects.

Already complicating envoy George Mitchell’s mission was a new demand by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an Israeli military presence in the West Bank to stop weapons smuggling, even after formation of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Mitchell met late Thursday with Mr. Netanyahu. No details of the discussions were released. Earlier, Mr. Mitchell saw Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres.

As Mr. Mitchell began his mission, Mr. Obama admitted he overreached in the Middle East.

In an interview with Time Magazine published Thursday, Mr. Obama said internal conflicts made it hard for the Israelis and Palestinians to restart talks, “and I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that.”

He said Israel “found it very hard to move with any bold gestures,” while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had “Hamas looking over his shoulder.”

Mr. Obama concluded, “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

Before meeting Mr. Peres, Mr. Mitchell pledged to soldier on. He said Mr. Obama’s vision is a Palestinian state alongside Israel in peace. “We will pursue [that] until we achieve that objective,” Mr. Mitchell said.

The envoy is set to meet with Palestinian officials in the West Bank on Friday.

Mr. Mitchell has been laboring without success for a year to get both sides back to the negotiating table, and Mr. Netanyahu’s new demand made his mission even tougher.

Mr. Netanyahu said Israel must maintain a presence “on the eastern side of a prospective Palestinian state” to keep militants from using the territory to launch rockets at Israel’s heartland.

The eastern side of such a state would be the part of the Jordan Valley that lies in the West Bank.

Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh rejected the demand. “The Palestinian leadership will not accept a single Israeli soldier on Palestinian land after ending the Israeli occupation,” he said.

The Palestinians have refused to sit down with Israel until it stops all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying it is eating up lands they claim for their future state.

Israel, which captured both areas in 1967, has slowed settlement construction in the West Bank, but has applied no restrictions in East Jerusalem, which Mr. Netanyahu hopes to retain.

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